From Mary Burgan. Her movie column now runs weekly.
Everyone will probably get a chance to see the Coen brothers’ lavish remake of True Grit. But if you’ve missed the run of Winter’s Bone during its few weeks at E Street this fall, you’ll have to go to some other outlet to view it. (I hope that nomination for Best Picture and Best Actress will bring it back to some screen nearby soon.)
Both True Grit and Winter’s Bone are about the stamina of teen-aged girls who are determined to act for their absent fathers in behalf of their families. Winter’s Bone is a much more modest film by the little-known film maker, Debra Granik, but it should give the Coen brothers’ film a run for the Oscar. That won’t happen, but it’s useful to consider the different emphases that each film gives to the resolution of an American girl in the fatherless wilds of our lawless backwoods.
Like Winter’s Bone, True Grit confronts the violence that threatens the ties between fathers and daughters in those wilds. The 1969 star vehicle version that features John Wayne is a relatively simple movie in which Mattie Ross, the daughter seeking to avenge her father’s death, is pert and cute, though the actress Kim Darby never made in it the movies. In the remake, Hailee Steinfeld is engaging and promising and less a starlet. She deserves the nod Oscar has given her for the implacable seriousness that she projects.
There has been a lot of talk about which actor did the best Rooster Cogburn — Wayne or the newly nominated Jeff Bridges in the remake of True Grit. But I think that’s a dumb discussion in which to engage. The first version was meant to be a family Western, with Wayne as the obvious softy whose drunken falls off his horse are slapstick.
The second version of True Grit makes a deeper demand on the audience. Bridges really is a mess; his drunkenness is more believably pathological than Wayne’s, but he manages to show a subtle shift in consciousness about his limits by the end of his adventure with Mattie. That makes for a fine piece of acting.
The Coen brothers also side-step all the froth of John Wayne’s comic tumbles by rustling up a lot more wiry facial hair, bummed-up faces, and rotten teeth in service of a version of the Old West that is supposed to be authentic because it features an emphasis on American carelessness about the value of life.
The Coens’ seemingly scrupulous adherence to the archaic language of Charles Portis’ original novel suggests a moral seriousness in what was only a comic ornamentation in the first version of True Grit. Nevertheless, having actors define issues of guilt, retribution, and resoluteness by citing moral absolutes in language that refuses the slackness of contractions does not really create a sense of the tragic. It adds to the farce.
The Coen brothers are better at framing the seriousness of life and death by presenting the story within a panorama of its original setting in Oklahoma. The wide spaces there are filmed in breathtaking vistas by Roger Deakins and his art makes True Grit a beautiful film — so try to see it in a big theater rather than on the home screen.
But True Grit is not nearly so profound a movie about real life rescued from rank cruelty by a girl as Winter’s Bone is. There the starkness of violence is never softened by comic relief. The girl, Ree Dolly, has to find her meth-cooking Ozark pa because he’s put the family house and little bit of land up for bond. They’ll lose everything if he doesn’t show.
With a zombie, drugged mother and a younger brother and sister to care for, the girl Ree just has to find her daddy. In doing so, she must face members of her own clan and culture that are far more scary than the cut-out desperadoes of the Coens’ version of the earlier west.
Ree does this almost wordlessly — few speeches here, but a lot of fearlessness. I won’t give away the end, though it is of a piece with the dismal authenticity of the beginning. I will say, though, that its image of that girl sitting on the front porch steps with her brother and sister says far more about courage than the image of Mattie and Rooster Cogburn in the new True Grit under a wide and beautiful expanse of sky. Winter’s Bone, is, after all, a serious film.